Some of you may remember last year that I handed out a Baschnagel award, trying to foster some kind awareness of facial hair and Ohio State football. Nader Abdallah was given the prize on account of a neatly trimmed beard and a story that I thought Buckeye fans should know and appreciate more. Baschnagel’s glorious mustache is a rarity in this generation and a glance through the roster and game pictures reveals that there are no real candidates for such an award. Ohio State’s football team was so outclassed and outperformed by Penn State’s Josh Hull here that I can’t do the award again.
Instead, I will go the route that the Baschnagel award went last year: calling attention to an outgoing football player without much fanfare. I liked how that post turned out. Austin Spitler’s takedown of Adam Robinson in overtime against Iowa naturally came up, and, really, the post is writing itself.
I don’t want to dwell too much on some of what follows. Nevertheless, Buckeye fans probably know that Austin Spitler’s career was a long and winding road. Spitler was in the 2005 recruiting class for Ohio State, alongside James Laurinaitis. Both were projected to be inside linebackers in college and thus, presumably, competing for playing time in the same position down the road. While in the same freshman class, Laurinaitis nevertheless got the headstart on Spitler. James Laurinaitis made the more immediate impact, rising on the depth chart while Spitler redshirted his first year at Ohio State. When Bobby Carpenter went down the first play of the game against Michigan, Laurinaitis came off the bench to replace him. A true freshman, Laurinaitis played through that game and that stirring victory, started against Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl and, with the graduation of Hawk, Schlegel, and Carpenter was in pole position for a starting spot before Spitler played a down. Laurinaitis ended up being one of the most beloved player in recent memory at Ohio State. Spitler, sure to sit behind Laurinaitis at the same position for the next three years, earned his playing time on special teams.
Therein, Spitler had what may be the lowest moment of his playing career against LSU. I know I don’t need to dwell on this, but you surely remember what happened. The one-loss 2007 Buckeyes had the best defense in the country, led by the award-winning Laurinaitis. However, their defense had forfeited 24 unanswered points in the first half and the Buckeyes trailed by 2 TDs at half. LSU would get the ball to start the half. Fortunately, the defense held on LSU’s first possession of the second half. On the punt, a 4th and 23rd no less, Austin Spitler broke free up the middle and had a killshot on LSU’s punter. He missed. He missed the ball, roughed the punter. LSU got a free set of downs and scored a touchdown. If he blocks that punt, he gives Ohio State new life in great field position if he doesn’t house that ball himself to turn the game into a 1 TD deficit. He missed, and the game degenerated into a de facto rout. He missed by a second. But with the stakes of football and championship games, a second separates a hero and a goat.
Laurinaitis graduated after the 2008 season. Coupled with the departure of SAM backer Marcus Freeman, 2 of the 3 linebacker spots were up for grabs. However, there was a new sentiment among Buckeye fans now: out with the old, in with the fashion. The 2008 and 2009 recruiting classes had brought some energy to the fans as recruiting invariably picked up in these two years. Spots were open, but we started to wonder if Spitler was a relic of a bygone era in Ohio State recruiting who, at the most, we remembered for his mistake against LSU. After fast, spread offenses had torched our defense through the preceding years, we wanted speed on the field and the new guys coming in were sure to have a lot of it. We wanted to see the likes of Etienne Sabino, Storm Klein and Dorian Bell. If my memory serves me well, Etienne Sabino had leapfrogged Austin Spitler on the depth chart in 2008 and I assumed he would do the same in 2009. In the end, Spitler had won the starting SAM linebacker spot, over Sabino. He had earned his spot.
Fast forward to November 14th, 2009. It’s senior day, the last game Spitler will play as a Buckeye in the Horseshoe. This game had more implications than that: the winner was assured a trip to Pasadena to play the Pac-10 champion. Spitler, one of the three captains of the 2009 team, would get to put his mark on his career at Ohio State if he could help lead the Buckeyes to Tressel’s first Rose Bowl. He contributed 6 tackles (3 solo) with 2 TFLs in the overtime victory. It’s the last tackle, a TFL, that concerns us here.
It’s overtime. Iowa may have had the momentum, however quantified. The Buckeyes were up two touchdowns in the 4th quarter and Buckeyes fans in attendance were biting their roses. Undaunted, Iowa stormed back to push the game past regulation. After losing the coin toss, Iowa begins with the ball. James Vandenberg begins overtime with a bootleg right, but throws the ball out of bounds when his primary and second reads were not open. It’s 2nd and 10 at Ohio State’s 25. Iowa, after calling pass on first down, decides to keep it on the ground with Adam Robinson to shorten the distance, presuming a 3rd down was coming. The handoff is made to Robinson and Spitler attacks downhill. He is met by H-back Adam Morse, but Spitler quickly dispatches him and makes a b-line for Robinson. Robinson is then 5 yards in the backfield and looks to cut up, but Doug Worthington has beat his block and taken away that option. Robinson’s only option is now to pray that he gets the edge. However, Spitler is waiting for him. Robinson sees this, but it is too late. 6 yards in the backfield, Robinson is taken down by Spitler. In the moment, Spitler shows off his guns and lets out a primal scream.
2nd and 10 became 3rd and 16 for Iowa because of Spitler’s play. On the right hash and about 48 yards from a 3 pt lead for Daniel Murray, who had missed a 22 yarder earlier in the second half, Iowa was now in that domain of loss. They needed to take a chance down field with their green quarterback. They were rewarded with a 10 yard sack by Doug Worthington, who in a moment had broke free from the line of scrimmage to take down Vandenberg. 3rd and 16 was now 4th and 26. Out of field goal range, Iowa went for it on 4th down. Vandenberg was intercepted in the end zone by Anderson Russell. Ohio State won the game, the Big Ten championship and the trip to Pasadena 4 plays later.
It would be possible, and in good spirit, to single out Worthington and Russell, both outgoing seniors, for the magic they contributed, but Spitler’s play was pivotal. After the outcome certain, I became fascinated with Spitler’s post-tackle flex of his pipes. Now that the season is over and the Rose Bowl trophy is in Columbus, I’ve had time to dwell on it.
Football at Ohio State is as much whimsical for an outside observer as it is scary. Fans aren’t fickle so much as they’re impassioned zealots blinded by the drive for glory. It may seem impetuous, impulsive but it’s precisely this impulsiveness that played a large hand in bring Ohio State to the mountaintop in the early 20th century when it was still not far removed from its ag school origins and still seen as a newcomer in the Big Ten. It’s less a fandom, more a rage1. Perfection from the football team is as much demanded by the fans as it is a stipulated requirement. This insatiable lust for glory after glory leads fans at Ohio State — and indeed anywhere — to remember fondly our heroes, and we may struggle with others that have come through the program. Austin Spitler was not a 3 year starter. He does not have a Nagurski Award, a Butkus Award, Lambert Awards, a Lott Trophy nor does he have the all-conference accolades. 2nd on the depth chart for 3 years is not conducive to gaining the necessary experience to facilitate a transition to the pros. As such, sometimes I wonder how a guy like Spitler will take it: not now, but 10 years, 20 years down the road when his name may enter a conversation and the topic will likely be the roughing the punter penalty. Every Buckeye football player who has contributed their time to the program and lived a good, honorable life afterwards should be appreciated by every Buckeye fan. This holds for everyone from Archie Griffin down to Greg Hare, Srecko Zizakovic, and my friend Adam’s father, a walk-on offensive lineman (OSU class of 1970, I think) who, after his walk-on days were over, became the very proud, happily married father of three married sons. Only one of those four is sure to receive a hero’s welcome in the Columbus area from the community at large, however2.
Spitler may have gotten his fair share of grief in his 5 years at Columbus. It may be latent now but may he hear the voices of 100,000+ screaming Buckeyes now and hopefully think of us kindly. Yet, for all his trials as a football player for Ohio State, he will always have that moment, that image, that feeling of triumph. Night had set on the Horseshoe and the electricity of 100,000 Buckeye fans (and Sean McDonough’s enthusiasm in the booth) coursed through the arteries of the guns he now displayed for the world to see. His sure tackle helped send the Buckeyes to Pasadena. 20 years from now, should Spitler be asked by someone — fan, future child or otherwise — what it was like to play for Ohio State, he can point to that. It’s his moment and no one will take it away from him.